Picking the Wrong Fight: Richie McCaw v Quade Cooper

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For reasons Quade Cooper has not yet divulged, he played Richie McCaw off the ball then later in the same game, whacked him on the head deliberately. A few months later he kneed the AllBlacks skipper in the head, creating a bitter rivalry between himself and the whole of New Zealand. GREGOR PAUL with the story.

Richie McCaw of the All Blacks (L) jostles Quade Cooper of the Wallabies (R)during the Tri-Nations Bledisloe Cup match between the Australian Wallabies and the New Zealand All Blacks at Suncorp Stadium on August 27, 2011 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

It was in Hong Kong, 2010 whenQuade Cooper and Richie McCaw became firm enemies. It was early in the second half when McCaw was legally on the fringes of a ruck, looking at the ball whenCooper charged through and took him out.

It was a needless clean out and when Cooper stood over McCaw after his cheap shot, McCaw thrust out his boot and clipped the Wallaby first-five's legs with his studs.

An act of self-defence or a warning to back-off? Who would know? But Cooper's mind was made up – he felt aggrieved. He felt wronged. He felt he had to do something in the way of retaliation even though he was the initial aggressor and lucky to escape sanction for his recklessness.

His state of mind was obvious when the Wallabies scored a game-winning try after the hooter. It was a huge moment because it broke a 10-test winning streak the All Blacks had enjoyed stretching back to 2008.

Understandably the Wallabies were elated, euphoric, even, to have pulled the game out of the fire and asJames O'Connor went over in the corner, Cooper made sure that he flew in late and shoved/clobbered McCaw, who was returning to his feet after unsuccessfully trying to save the day.

It was an obvious revenge attack by Cooper – premeditated and aggressive. After he'd shoved McCaw, Cooper then stood over him, yelling some kind of obscenity. A few All Blacks saw what was happening and pushed Cooper out the way – told him to get lost.

That really should have been it. It was unsavoury, but the feud could have been confined to one game ifCooper had let it.

McCaw had been subjected to endless cheap shots throughout his career and it never particularly bothered him. McCaw could shrug off the fact that Cooper had been intent on targeting him.

He'd seen it all before and he knew there was never any point in getting involved – of stirring things up. He wasn't one for grudges or prolonged, running battles with fellow professionals.He was all about leaving what happened on the field on the field and he wouldn't have given the whole business another thought.

But when the two sides met inBrisbane in August 2011, just a few weeks before the World Cup, Cooper was still itching for trouble. He was obviously still harbouring this desire to niggle McCaw – to play him off the ball.

It was once again early in the second half when he snapped. He found himself on top of McCaw at a ruck and and as he clambered to his feet, he 'accidentally' smashed his knee into the AllBlacks' skipper's head. Brad Thorn saw it and reacted – jumping on Cooper to let him know that he wasn't going to put up with any of that.

Later in the game, McCaw found himself in the open. He had space and he was shifting and in front of him wasCooper. McCaw's eyes lit up – he tucked the ball under his arm and headed straight for the smaller man to crash into him. As satisfying it was, it was the wrong thing for the team and McCaw instantly regretted it as he would reveal in his autobiography.

“There was a bit of post-game controversy around Quade Cooper's attempt to knee me in the head as he was extricating himself from a ruck,” McCaw wrote.

“The intent of what he was trying to do pissed me off more than the execution.Shortly after that happened, I was carrying and should have passed, but I lit up and I saw Quade standing in front of me and clattered into him instead.

“I was disappointed in myself doing that, letting it get personal. There's no need- players like Quade get sorted. Sooner or later they get their beans.”

Interestingly,Cooper didn't get sorted by the judiciary who bought his explanation that it was all a giant accident.

It wasn't a great outcome for the Wallaby, however, as it incensed a New Zealand public who already didn't like him. If Cooper hadn't realised already, picking a fight with McCaw was much the same as picking a fight with the whole of NewZealand. And of all the people to do it...a New Zealand-born and raised first-five, who turned his back on his homeland for a Wallaby jumper.

 Cooper could hardly have been more hated when he arrived in New Zealand a few weeks later for the World Cup. His country of birth had decided they were going to love to hate him and that his assaults on the most treasured All Black – McCaw– were unforgivable.

McCaw was the country's guiding light in 2011 [and before and beyond]: the man in whom the nation trusted to finally win the All Blacks a World Cup. There hadbeen too much suffering; too many things had gone wrong at too many previous tournaments and McCaw was going to fix it all.

He was the one man who simply couldn't ever be injured. He was the one man who had the experience and sheer will of personality to drag the All Blacks through tight games and if anyone, particularly a jump-start Wallaby, messed withMcCaw, they would feel the wrath of a stadium of four million.

“I don’t mind being 'Public Enemy No 1' or I don’t mind being the No 1 fan here,”Cooper said on arrival.

“It’s going to come with the territory. Most New Zealanders hate the Wallabies but there’s a lot out there who respect the way we play as well.

“We have a lot of respect for the All Black public and for the All Black jersey as well, for what they’ve done and the history they have.”

What level of respect the New Zealand public had for the Wallabies would become known on October 16 when the two clashed in the semifinal. It was a huge game –and the tension that night was incredible.

Richie McCaw of the All Blacks (L) fends off Quade Cooper of the Wallabies (R)during the Tri-Nations Bledisloe Cup match between the Australian Wallabies and the New Zealand All Blacks at Suncorp Stadium on August 27, 2011 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

No one was feeling it more than Cooper. He knew he was not popular. And he knew because his feud with McCaw had been a constant sideshow throughout the tournament and intensified in the lead up to the semifinal.

He knew that he was going to be under intense scrutiny. He knew that an entire nation was willing for him to fail and that they would potentially lynch him if he so much as looked in McCaw's direction.

And everyone in New Zealand knew that Cooper knew he was under pressure as early as the first second of the semifinal. He would have loved to have hidden his nervousness and given the crowd nothing to use against him, but the Wallaby first-five put his kick off out on the full. It was a terrible start and one that signalled Cooper's nerves and lack of focus.

His evening deteriorated from there: he dropped high balls, missed touch, missed tackles, threw wild passes and was beaten black and blue – legally – by endless, thumping All Blacks tackles.

And all night, without fail, his every touch was booed and jeered. When he was hammered by an All Black, the crowd cheered. They loved the theatre. They had their pantomime villain and they hissed and roared and loved hating him.

It was a sobering and humiliating experience for Cooper and McCaw came out of the game a hero – or rather an even greater hero. He had staunchly ignored the feud in the build-up and just as calmly ignored it on the field. He had no interest and more importantly, no need to worry about Cooper.

By the end, Cooper was broken. He'd had a horrible night where he paid the full price for his previous misdemeanours and when All Blacks coach Graham Henry was asked whether he thought it was a bit much that the crowd had booed Cooper relentlessly, he replied: “Quade has brought a wee bit of that on himself.You've got to earn some respect and he lost some respect from previous actions.”

Cooper almost admitted as much himself: “Everyone was trying to get at me personally and I definitely think I’m going to be better off for it,” he said.

“It’s been the case the whole tournament, from the minute I stepped off the plane to the minute that I’m sure I get on the plane – everyone will have their opinions.”

It's hard to know whether the rivalry between Cooper and McCaw died that night.There were no further incidents as such, although it was fascinating that in the last test before the 2015 World Cup, the Wallabies picked Cooper to play atEden Park. He had another shocker and the crowd booed him almost as hard as they had four years earlier.

The feud, however, didn't get mentioned to the same extent and by then, Cooper was such an insignificant presence that McCaw could afford to ignore him all night and not give it a second thought.


Where Did it Start?

HongKong 2010

What Happened?

Cooper, not the most physical of players, blind-sided McCaw at a ruck. The Wallaby No10 charged through – not quite legally – and cleaned out an unsuspecting McCaw.Cooper then gave McCaw a verbal spray – at which point, the All Blacks captain lashed out with his boot.

Why did Cooper do that?

According to Wallaby legend Michael Lynagh: “I think Quade probably shouldn't have done what he did. But there are probably reasons why. Maybe if you go back and look at the tape at what Richie might have done before to one of the other members of the [Wallabies] team, maybe there was a bit of frustration on Quade's part and [he was] going to the aid of some of his team-mates.

“It just happens to be the icon of New Zealand rugby, the captain and one of the great players. Quade picked the wrong guy, but there are probably reasons for it.”

Who came out on top?

NZ and RH McCaw.

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